St. Paul students line up to stick their hands inside “blubber mitts” (Crisco-lined plastic bags) to learn how marine mammals stay warm in the cold Bering Sea. (Photo by John Ryan/KUCB)
St. Paul School Struggles To Keep Its Students School enrollment in the Pribilof Islands has been shrinking in recent years, along with the islands’ fishing economy. KUCB’s John Ryan visited the school on St. Paul Island. He sent in this profile of a small school struggling to teach and keep its students.
Connie Newman wears many hats at the St. Paul School. In the predawn gloom, she greets students as they get dropped off outside.
Newman: “Morning, Sienna. Good morning, Fiona.”
“Good morning!” the girls said.
Newman is superintendent of the Pribilof School District. I spoke with her while she was sweeping the St. Paul school gym.
“Due to declining enrollment, we reduced staff, and so I assumed the responsibilities of the building principal in addition to the superintendent [and occasional gym sweeper?] Yeah.”
St. Paul’s gym doesn’t see as much action as it used to. This is the first year the St. Paul Sea Parrots haven’t been able to field a basketball team.
“Basketball’s a big deal. We had a very good team, in fact, last year,” she said. “But even then, it’s a coed team, boys and girls. This year, no, we do not have enough.”
Some families have left the island; others have sent their kids to boarding schools in other parts of the state.
“The course offerings are pretty limited here,” Newman said. “We can't offer a lot of the art and music.”
Ryan: “Do you like going to school here?”
“To be honest, not really,” said Carley Bourdukofsky, an eighth grader. She was on a school field trip to look for sea lions.
“You don't really learn that much. I’d like to go to Mt. Edgecumbe next year,” she said.
That’s a boarding school in Sitka. Ninth grader Sonia Merculief says she transferred to a boarding school in Galena this fall.
“It was a better education. It’s kinda more strict and stuff. It’s more learning, more opportunities,” said Merculief
She says she got homesick, so she came back. But she wants to try again.
“I'm going to ask my mom this time if I can reapply for next semester,” she said.
“But you don’t think you’d get homesick again?” KUCB asked.
St. Paul does have course offerings that students can’t get anywhere else. Like Aleut language classes. And the week of special science classes that brought students out looking for sea lions in the surf of the Bering Sea. Every year, scientists descend on St. Paul to teach about its biology and traditions. The week of classes is largely paid for by the local fishing industry.
Carley Bourdukofsky says she likes that part of the school year.
“I like to learn different things and new things about our island,” Bourdukofsky said.
By lots of measures, the St. Paul School is struggling.
Four out of five St. Paul students don’t meet state standards for English or math. That’s according to the new Alaska Measures of Progress tests.
A study done for the legislature this year found that the Pribilof district would have to boost salaries by 57 percent to attract and keep highly qualified teachers. That’s because of the high cost of living out in the middle of the Bering Sea. A box of cereal can set you back nearly $9 at the Alaska Commercial store on St. Paul. A bag of pretzels? Nearly $10.
Most [four out of five] students on the island are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But like many small schools in Alaska, St. Paul doesn’t serve lunch. It did offer snacks to kids last year. But Connie Newman says that grant ran out.
“That was the Alaska Grown grant, which was discontinued due to the budget,” she said.
Newman says she has a great staff and supportive families on the island, but declining enrollment means less state funding.
“We still have the same costs even though we have fewer kids,” Newman said. “I mean, you're talking heat and lights. No respite.”
Newman says a driving force behind the declining enrollment is something the school can’t do much about: people leaving the island in search of a more stable economy.
“Our fishery has really been suffering, and we are allowed to take less and less halibut,” Newman said.
The island’s economy revolves around halibut fishing. In the Bering Sea, more halibut are caught accidentally and thrown away by Seattle-based trawlers than the local halibut boats catch on purpose.
“We had one of our big families, they just took their boat and left last year,” she said. “I'm sure there'll be more if it continues.”
The school got a bit of a reprieve this month from Seattle of all places. Scientists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission announced that there’s enough halibut in the eastern Bering Sea to allow a substantially larger fishery than last year. Scientist Ian Stewart said the bycatch, or accidental catch, of halibut dropped this year.
“All in all, quite good news here in terms of bycatch,” Stewart. “We saw some very large reductions.”
Political appointees will decide the actual catch limit. But the scientists’ announcement makes it less likely that families will be forced to leave St. Paul this school year.
(Reporting from St. Paul Island made possible in part by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.)